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The city of Acco, also known as Acre and Ptolemais, is a seaport located at the northern point of the Bay of Acco or Haifa. This bay is formed by the cape of Mount Carmel which extends about 13 kilometers or 8 miles to the south into the Mediterranean Sea.
During the time of the Judges in Israel, the Canaanite city of Acco was located on a mound which is identified as Tell el-Fukhkhar or Tel ʽAkko, situated about 1 km away from the bay and 1.8 km to the east of the current Old City walls. As time passed, during the Persian period from the sixth century B.C.E., the city expanded westward and included the peninsula at the northern end of the Bay of Haifa. The port of the city was established there and continued to function. In the time of the Christian Era, the location of Acco had expanded to include the peninsula and is part of the modern city of ʽAkko.
Acco, also known as Acre, was an important seaport city on the coast of Palestine located about 39 km (24 mi) south of Tyre. During the time of Herod the Great, an artificial port was built at Caesarea, making it the primary port, but Acco remained strategically important due to its proximity to the rich Plain of Jezreel (Esdraelon) and its connections to trade routes in Galilee and the Jordan Valley. Despite providing poor shelter from sea winds, Acco exported valuable goods such as timber, artistic commodities, and grain.
Acco was a city assigned to the tribe of Asher in the Promised Land, but the tribe failed to drive out the Canaanites who lived there. Although the city is only mentioned once in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is frequently referred to in non-Biblical records. The name Acco appears in the Amarna Tablets and it was subjugated by the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. During the Maccabean rule, the city was known as Ptolemais, a name given to it by Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, and it was a center of opposition as recorded in the Apocrypha. (1 Maccabees 5:15, 22, 55; 12:45-48; 13:12)
During the time of the Roman Emperor Claudius, Ptolemais, which was previously known as Acco, became a Roman colony. It was also home to a group of Christians during apostolic times. On his third missionary tour, Paul stopped at Ptolemais (also known as Acco) and spent some time visiting fellow Christians there before continuing on to Caesarea and Jerusalem. Today, the city of ʽAkko, which is the modern name for Acco, is not as significant as the nearby city of Haifa, which is located on the opposite side of the bay.
Extensive Archaeological Excavations
In 1973, M. Dothan began leading extensive archaeological excavations at Tell Acco on behalf of the University of Haifa and various universities in Germany, Denmark, and the USA.
The earliest remains of the city were discovered at Tell Acco and date back to the Early Bronze Age I. These remains consist of pottery, foundations of walls, floors, and pits dug into the rock. They indicate that farmers lived at the site during a transitional period from the Chalcolithic period to the Early Bronze Age I, and the settlement lasted for about 200 years. It is possible that rising sea levels led to the inundation of part of the mound over a long period of time. Settlement on the mound was not resumed until the Middle Bronze Age I, during the urbanization of the Canaanite coast. During this time, the fortifications of the town consisted mainly of earthen ramparts built one above the other, extending the area of the mound towards the north. The earliest rampart was made of solid clay earth, with a wall of very large stones built above it, and it was later strengthened by an additional rampart. A two-story brick citadel, Citadel A, was erected on top of the ramparts, and in the Late Bronze Age, another rampart was built above the remains of the citadel. These ramparts protected the mound on all sides except the south, where Acco was defended by the swamps of the Naaman River. Another possibility is that a lagoon provided anchorage on this side for light craft. Excavations at Tell Acco began in 1973 and were conducted by the University of Haifa, along with several universities in Germany, Denmark, and the USA, under the direction of M. Dothan.
The excavators discovered a gate in the southwestern area of the mound known as the ‘Sea Gate,’ which belonged to the earliest rampart. This gate had two chambers and three pairs of asymmetric pilasters, and was nearly 60 feet long. One of the chambers contained a stone bench, which might have been used by city elders, for trade, or for passing judgment. Pottery found in the gate shows that it was used during three phases of Middle Bronze Age IIA. In the city’s earliest rampart, jars containing the remains of children were discovered.
During the Middle Bronze Age IIB, the citadel that had previously been built was transformed into a solid building, measuring 46 feet by 30 feet, with walls 6 feet wide and standing at a height of 14 feet. The citadel was destroyed at the end of the 18th century BC. In a room on the lower floor of the citadel, a large tomb was discovered with inner walls lined with thin stone slabs. The tomb contained three skeletons, a woman with a child on either side of her, believed to be from the local nobility. The tomb also held numerous pottery vessels, silver ornaments, and a Hyksos-style pottery juglet. The tomb was apparently robbed in ancient times. On the slope of the mound, many burials from this period were found, with various items such as pottery vessels, weapons, scarabs, and a rare jug of the chocolate-on-white type, originating from northern Syria or Anatolia. A unique type of tomb with a vaulted roof was also discovered.
Archaeological excavations at the Tell el-Fukhkhar site of Acco have uncovered remains of the Late Bronze Age I-II period. These remains include massive walls, indicating the presence of large buildings that have only been partially explored. Many Cypriote vessels of various types have also been found, as well as a pit full of crushed murex shells, suggesting the existence of a purple dye industry. Some rooms, especially those above the rampart, have been linked to agriculture and contain silos and various stone implements. In a small area, bronze figurines of the ‘Resheph’ type and molds for casting Astarte figurines were discovered alongside Late Bronze Age Cypriote and Mycenaean pottery. These finds suggest that Late Bronze Age Acco was a well-planned city, but the fortifications have yet to be found. Additionally, the location of the gate that was destroyed by Pharaoh Rameses II, as depicted in the reliefs in his palace at Karnak, has yet to be determined.
END OF THE LATE BRONZE AGE AND THE BEGINNING OF THE IRON AGE
At the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, ashes from an industrial quarter were found in several places on the Tell Acco mound, particularly above the citadel. These ashes originated from pottery kilns and metal foundries and suggest that Acco was a center for industry during this time. The pottery associated with these industries is Mycenaean-III-C and the crushed murex shells indicate that wool was dyed in this quarter. An Egyptian scarab found in this layer dates the occupation of this area to after 1200 BC. It is also possible that Acco was occupied by some of the Sea Peoples during this period.
IRON AGE I–II
During the Iron Age I–II (11th–9th centuries BC), very little remains of Acco have survived. The decline of the city during this period may be related to the rise of Tyre. However, Acco experienced a revival in the 9th century BC, and reached its peak during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Ashlar construction, which may have been for public buildings, was first used in Acco during this time. One of these buildings was still standing during the Assyrian period, and had a solid brick wall that was seven courses high. The building was destroyed during an Assyrian conquest, likely by Sennacherib. A cache of small geometrically-shaped silver ingots was found at this level. Another building was destroyed during the reign of Asurbanipal, and also had traces of a metal industry.
During the Persian period, Acco underwent significant changes and became a vital center for administration and commerce. The city moved closer to Acco Bay, and Greek artifacts began to appear in addition to Phoenician elements. This period marked a revival in the city’s history, with a well-planned city being built on the mound. The Persian administrative center was a public building constructed of ashlars, and cult objects were found in a pit. Buildings featuring the Phoenician method of construction with alternating ashlar and fieldstone sections were also discovered. The finds in this part of the town were mostly Greek, including Attic pottery from the late 6th–5th centuries BC, Attic Red-Figured vases, and Cypriote vessels. It appears that Phoenician and Greek cultures coexisted in Acco, with the latter possibly having a Greek merchants’ quarter in the city.
During the Hellenistic Period, the city of Akko, also known as Ptolemais, moved its center to the bay while still retaining its administrative functions on the inland mound. In the early phase, buildings were constructed in the Phoenician fashion, but there was a mixing of the population, and ethnic separation was no longer present. Stamped jar handles found during this period point to an extensive import of wine from Rhodes, Cos, and Thasos.
In more recent times, particularly in the last century, agricultural practices have led to the damage and destruction of many of the layers of the city that date back to the Hellenistic era. Coins found on the surface of the mound show that the location was strategically important from the time of the Romans to the Turkish period.
In 37 BC, the Romans conquered Akko, which was a Hellenized Phoenician port-city. It was turned into a colony in southern Roman Phoenicia and named Colonia Claudia Felix Ptolemais Garmanica Stabilis. For almost seven centuries, it remained a Roman city until the Muslim Arabs took over in 636 CE. During the rule of Augustus, a gymnasium was constructed in the city. In 4 BC, the Roman proconsul Publius Quinctilius Varus gathered his army in Akko to quell the revolts that arose in the region after the death of Herod the Great.
During the reign of Emperor Claudius, there was a building project in Ptolemais, and Roman legion veterans settled in the city. Ptolemais was one of four colonies established by Roman emperors in the ancient Levant for veterans of their legions, alongside Berytus, Aelia Capitolina, and Caesarea Maritima.
Although the city was a center of Romanization in the region, most of its population was made up of local Phoenicians and Jews. As a result, the descendants of the initial Roman colonists stopped speaking Latin and fully assimilated into the local society’s customs within two centuries after the Hadrian era, although their customs remained Roman.
According to the Christian Acts of the Apostles, Luke the Evangelist, Paul the Apostle, and their companions spent a day in Ptolemais with the Christian brethren there.
The establishment of an important Roman colony greatly increased the Romans’ control of the region in the next century, and Roman colonists from Italy were relocated there. The Romans expanded the port, and the city’s population grew to over 20,000 inhabitants in the second century during Emperor Hadrian’s reign. Ptolemais prospered greatly for two more centuries.
During the Byzantine Period, Ptolemais came under the control of the Byzantine Empire after the Roman Empire was permanently divided in 395 CE. However, the city’s significance began to decline during this time, and by the seventh century, it had become a small settlement with a population of less than one thousand people.
EARLY ISLAMIC PERIOD
In 638, Acre came under the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate after the Byzantine army was defeated by the Rashidun army in the Battle of Yarmouk, and the Christian city of Jerusalem was taken by the Caliph Umar. The Muslim chronicler al-Baladhuri reported that Shurahbil ibn Hasana led the actual conquest of Acre, and it likely surrendered without resistance. The Arab conquest brought renewed growth to the town of Acre, and it remained a significant port of Palestine through the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates that followed, as well as during Crusader rule in the 13th century.
During the rule of the Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah I, Acre’s fortifications were strengthened, and Persians from other parts of Muslim Syria were brought in to inhabit the city. As a result, Acre became one of the most important dockyards in the region, along with Tyre. Mu’awiyah launched an attack on Cyprus from Acre, and when the Byzantines retaliated by assaulting the coastal cities in 669, Mu’awiyah sent shipbuilders and carpenters to Acre to repair and strengthen the city’s defenses. Acre remained a major naval base throughout the early Abbasid period, with Caliph al-Mutawakkil even issuing an order in 861 to equip the city with battleships and combat troops. However, during the reign of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the bulk of the shipyards were moved north to Tyre.
In the 10th century, Acre was still under the jurisdiction of Jund al-Urdunn. In 985, Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi visited Acre during the early Fatimid Caliphate and described it as a fortified coastal city with a large mosque and a substantial olive grove. Prior to this, Emir Ibn Tulun of Egypt, who annexed the city in the 870s, built fortifications that provided relative safety for merchant ships arriving at the port. In 1047, Persian traveller Nasir Khusraw visited Acre and noted that the large Jama Masjid was made of marble and located in the center of the city. Just south of the mosque was the “tomb of the Prophet Salih.” Khusraw provided a description of the city’s size, indicating that it was larger than its current Old City area, most of which was built between the 18th and 19th centuries.
CRUSADER AND AYYUBID PERIOD
First Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (1104–1187)
During the First Crusade, the city of Acre surrendered to King Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1104 after a four-year siege. The Crusaders established Acre as their primary port in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, using it as a foothold in the region and access point to the lucrative spice trade with Asia. By the 1130s, Acre’s population had grown to around 25,000, rivaling only Jerusalem in size within the Crusader kingdom. By 1170, it had become the main port of the eastern Mediterranean and was considered the wealthiest city in the kingdom of Jerusalem, providing more revenue to the Crusader crown than the entire kingdom of England. Despite being under Crusader rule, Ibn Jubayr, an Andalusian geographer, reported that there was still a Muslim community in Acre in 1185, who worshipped in a small mosque.
AYYUBID INTERMEZZO (1187–1191)
During the Ayyubid period from 1187 to 1191, Acre, along with Beirut and Sidon, surrendered to the Ayyubid sultan Saladin without a fight. This happened after Saladin’s triumph in the Battle of Hattin and the capture of Jerusalem by Muslim forces.
SECOND CRUSADER KINGDOM OF JERUSALEM (1191–1291)
Acre was held by Muslim forces until King Guy of Lusignan and Pisan naval and ground forces unexpectedly laid siege in August 1189. It was an unusual siege because the Frankish forces themselves were besieged by Saladin’s troops. After the forces of the Third Crusade, led by King Richard I of England and King Philip II of France, came to King Guy’s aid, Acre was finally captured in July 1191. It became the de facto capital of the remaining Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1192. During the siege, German merchants from Lübeck and Bremen established a field hospital, which later became the chivalric Teutonic Order. After the Sixth Crusade, the Knights Hospitaller military order took over administration of the city. Acre remained a prosperous commercial hub of the eastern Mediterranean but was also troubled by bitter infighting among the Crusader factions, which sometimes led to civil wars.
The ancient part of the city, where the port and fortified city were located, jutted out into the sea, exposing both sides of the narrow land to the water. This allowed for maximum efficiency as a port, and the narrow entrance to this protrusion made it easy to defend the city. Both archaeological evidence and Crusader texts highlight the strategic importance of Acre, a city that was crucial to pass through, control, and protect, as evidenced by the massive walls.
Acre was the last significant stronghold of the Crusader states when much of the Levantine coastline was conquered by Mamluk forces. It eventually fell to Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291.
MAMLUK PERIOD (1291–1517)
In the Mamluk period, Acre was conquered by Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Khalil in a violent siege in 1291, as Europe had largely abandoned it. The Mamluk policy of destroying the coastal cities to prevent future utilization by Crusader forces was applied to Acre, except for a few Muslim sacred structures like the Nabi Salih tomb and the Ayn Bakar spring. Abu’l-Fida, a Syrian geographer, described Acre as a beautiful city in ruins in 1321, but noted that its port was still spacious and that there were many artisans. Throughout the Mamluk period, Acre was replaced by Safed as the principal city of its province.
During the Ottoman Empire period, Acre was incorporated into the empire in 1517. According to the 1596 census, the population of Acre was Muslim and consisted of 81 households and 15 bachelors. They paid a fixed tax rate of 25% on agricultural products and occasional revenues, which totaled to 20,500 Akçe. Half of this revenue went to a Waqf. In 1697, English academic Henry Maundrell found the city in ruins except for a caravanserai (khan) built by French merchants, a mosque, and a few poor cottages. The caravanserai was named Khan al-Ilfranj after its French founders.
During the Ottoman Empire’s reign, Acre remained important as smaller autonomous sheikhdoms continued to operate in the region. In the late 18th century, Acre’s fortunes improved under the leadership of Zahir al-Umar, an Arab ruler of the Galilee, who made it the capital of his autonomous sheikhdom. Zahir used materials from the city’s medieval ruins to rebuild its fortifications. He died outside Acre’s walls during an offensive by the Ottoman state in 1775. His successor, Jazzar Pasha, further fortified the city’s walls and moved the capital of the Saida Eyelet (“Province of Sidon”) to Acre. Jazzar’s architectural projects included several caravanserais, mosques, public baths, and other structures, such as the Al-Jazzar Mosque, built out of stones from ancient ruins of Caesarea and Atlit, and the Khan al-Umdan.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte aimed to start a rebellion against the Turkish rule in Syria. As part of his plan, he attacked Acre, a walled city in modern-day Israel, but failed to capture it. He tried to lay siege to the city on 20 March 1799, using only his infantry and small cannons, but the Ottoman troops defending the city were too strong. He lost his siege cannons to Sir Sidney Smith and his British sailors and retreated from the city two months later, on 21 May.
Under the leadership of Jazzar Pasha, Acre flourished in the late 18th century. After his death, Sulayman Pasha al-Adil became ruler and continued to promote the town’s prosperity until his death in 1819. However, after his death, Haim Farhi, who was his adviser, paid a large sum in bribes to ensure that Abdullah Pasha, whom he had known from youth, would be appointed as ruler. Despite this, Abdullah Pasha assassinated Farhi. Abdullah Pasha ruled Acre until 1831 when Ibrahim Pasha besieged the town, destroyed its buildings, and reduced it. In 1840, during the Oriental Crisis, Acre was bombarded by the British, Austrian, and French squadrons, and the following year was restored to Turkish rule. After linking with the Hejaz Railway by a branch line from Haifa in 1913, Acre regained some of its former prosperity. It remained the capital of the Acre Sanjak in the Beirut Vilayet until it was captured by the British during World War I on September 23, 1918.
Acre in Israel during the Mandate period was a city with a diverse population, consisting of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Baháʼís. It was also one of Israel’s mixed cities, with about one-third of its population being Arab.
During this period, Acre served as a center for the British Mandate administration and a hub for trade and commerce, with its port being an important gateway for imports and exports. The city also housed a prison which held Jewish political prisoners during the British mandate, including many who were involved in the struggle for Jewish independence in Palestine.
The Baháʼí Faith played a significant role in the city during this period, as Acre was considered the holiest city for the Baháʼí community in Israel, and the shrine of their religion’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, was located there. The Baháʼí community in Acre continued to grow during the Mandate period, with many pilgrims visiting the city each year.
Despite the diversity of its population, Acre experienced tensions between different groups during the Mandate period, with occasional outbreaks of violence and conflict. Nonetheless, the city continued to develop and prosper economically, and many of its historic buildings and landmarks from this period are still standing today.
1948 Palestine War
During the 1948 Palestine War, Acre was a mixed city with a population of Arabs and Jews. The city was strategically important due to its location on the Mediterranean coast and its proximity to Haifa. The city had a significant Arab population and was a center of Arab resistance against Jewish forces.
In April 1948, Acre was attacked by Jewish forces, but the city’s Arab defenders managed to hold them off. However, in May, after the fall of Haifa, Acre came under siege by Jewish forces. The city’s defenders, including members of the Arab Liberation Army and local Arab militias, were outmatched and outnumbered.
On May 17, the city’s leadership surrendered to the Jewish forces, and thousands of Arab residents fled the city. The remaining Arab population was forcibly expelled by the Jewish authorities in July 1948, in what is known as the “Acre prison break.” A group of Palestinian prisoners managed to escape from the city’s central prison, and in response, the Jewish authorities expelled the remaining Arab population from the city.
After the war, the city’s population was mainly Jewish, and it was incorporated into the State of Israel. Many of the Arab refugees who were expelled from Acre and other Palestinian cities during the war were not allowed to return to their homes and became refugees in neighboring countries.
Acre, Israel, 1950s to the Present
In the 1950s, Acre began to grow and develop as part of the young State of Israel. The city’s population continued to increase, with new neighborhoods and infrastructure built to accommodate the influx of immigrants. The city’s economy also expanded, with the development of new industries, such as fishing and tourism.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Acre underwent a period of urban renewal, with efforts to restore and preserve the city’s historic buildings and landmarks. Many of the old Ottoman-era buildings and fortifications were renovated, and new cultural attractions were established, such as museums and galleries.
In the 1980s, Acre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its unique cultural and historical significance. This designation brought increased attention and investment to the city’s preservation and development, with the restoration of additional historic sites and the establishment of new cultural events, such as the annual Acre Festival of Alternative Theater.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Acre continued to attract visitors and tourists, with the establishment of new hotels and restaurants. However, the city also faced challenges, such as economic inequality and social tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities.
Today, Acre is a vibrant and diverse city, home to a mix of Jewish and Arab residents. The city’s historic Old City, with its ancient walls, markets, and mosques, continues to attract visitors from around the world. Acre also serves as a center for education and culture, with several universities and museums located in the city.
As of 2021, Acre’s population in Israel is 49,614 and is composed of various religious groups including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bahá’ís. The city holds a special significance for Bahá’í Faith, and many followers of this religion visit the city as pilgrims each year. Acre is also considered a mixed city in Israel, with 32% of its population being Arab.